On clerks and the like

Suman K Sharma
Clerks have become mere assistants. IT threatens to rob them of the one thing they prided themselves on: being the writ of the ruler.
Clerks and their like were once a synonym of uber intellectuals. The word ‘clerk’ is derived from the Latin ‘clericus’, meaning ‘a priest’. Any literate man could be a clerk. We in India had a matching word, ‘munshi’. Queen Victoria employed a munshi – Mohammed Abdul Karim – to teach her Hindustani. The title of ‘munshi’ must have carried immense prestige in those days. Dhanpat Rai Shrivastava (1880-1936), a Hindustani author of the lasting fame, preferred to be known by the moniker, ‘Munshi Premchand’. Yet another home-grown term of the kind was ‘babu’, even though the noted English author, George Orwell,pays a left handed compliment to the babus of his time in his 1934 novel, Burmese Days:
‘Office babus are the real rulers of this country now. Our number’s up. Best thing we can do is toshut up shop and let ’em stew in their own juice.’
The Gora sahib, himself a minor functionary of the Raj, said what he had to say. But our great-grandfathers held babus in great esteem. Generally unlettered, they looked up to these men, who after modest schooling had joined the clerkdom, and respectfully called them ‘Babu-ji’. The epithet came to be used for a fatherfigure, particularly in the northern parts of the country. Jagjivan Ram, a prominent Dalit leader from Bihar, who was the Defence Minister during the triumphant war of 1971 and later rose to become the country’s Deputy Prime Minister (1977-79), proudly bore this honorific.
The attitude of the society changed though with the changing times. A decade had not passed since the independence, when babus began to be lampooned for all that they had stood for. In 1954, every gali-mohalla echoed with Geeta Dutt’s throaty voice. ‘Babu-ji dheere chalna/Pyar men zaraa sambhalna,’ – Go slow, Mister Babu/ many pitfalls there are in love – she sang. Three years later, the comedy-king Johnny Walker, capered hilariously in the Bollywood classic Naya Daur to the song,’Mein Bombai ka babu, naam mera anjana/English dhun mein gaaun men Hindustani gana’ – A nameless babu from Mumbai I am/I sing Indian song to the English tune!’ Then in 1960 came a Dev Anand starrer, Bombay ka Babu,based on a story about a petty criminal, ‘Babu’, aka Kundan. Another film with the same title appeared in 1996, with Saif-Ali Khan in the lead role. This film was also a petty criminal.
From the deferential tone of ‘babu-ji’ to the pejorative ‘clerk/babu’ – those who man sarkari desk-jobs have gone downhill in public estimation. Is it because of the rise in literacy rate or egalitarianism in the country? Well, that could be a fit subject for a doctorate thesis in Social Science. There is something more to it. Look at the dynamics of the society. Teachers teach. Traders trade. Policemen do policing. Judges judge. Engineers tend to engines. Physicians treat the sick. Soldiers fight. What do clerks and their ilk do? They do clerking. While others work, clerkdom is seen to sit primly on its seat, and like Indra, the king of gods, watches the goings-on with a thousand eyes; only to assert what comes to its mind. I accessed the journal kept by a friend of mine, Lekh Raj (name changed), who retired as a section officer a few years ago. He writes –
‘… is considered a ‘heavy’ section. Yet, I find the work here is light and pace easy….You open a file, read the last note, turn over a few pages, glance at the notings at random and come to a hazy conclusion. Then you sit down to record your own note on the file. In Finance, the thrust is on ‘savings’, which means rejection of proposals to avoid ‘extra’ expenditure. My first impulse is to reject the case outright. If this is difficult, I raise queries – any query would do….’
About his importance in the bureaucracy, Lekh Raj did not have any illusion. ‘There is something peculiar to my office,’ he goes on. ‘Each time that I come out of the room, the seat of my trousers turns white. I could not understand how it happened. Then an old hand told me. As I walked down from my seat to the door, my behind got rubbed against the recently whitewashed wall and my trousers got smudged by the safedi. The narrowness of my office is a constant reminder to me of the narrowness of my role here.’
Poor Lekh Raj might have been suffering from a bout of low self-esteem on the day he made that entry in his journal. The fact of the matter is that George Orwell’s words hold as true today as they did in 1934. The village patwari, the babu in DC’s office, the municipal clerk, the munshi in the local thana – theystill rule zealously over us through their petty domains. Even in the after-life, there is that eternal babu – Chitragupta – waiting for us with his ledger of our deeds and misdeeds!One comes to realize the might of babus when an exigency makes one stand before anyone of them.
Yet mightier are the babus who occupy the cubbyholes of the civil secretariats at the Centre, the states and the UTs. Their jottings mark the fate lines of the nation. This gentry plods endlessly to propose what the ministers should write and say in response to the questions these worthies are asked in the Parliament and Legislative Assemblies. They prepare the rough drafts for what ends up as the policy of the nation-state. It is their routine to make and break the cobwebs of rules and regulations for one and all to follow. It is their cunning again to keep an escape route in every labyrinth they construct. No wonder that practically in every statute one finds a ‘saving clause’ or a ‘proviso’. The babus have an antidote even when no saving clause exists: quote a precedent! ‘In such and such year, Sh. So-and-So was absolved of the infringement. Then this fellow should also be let off,’ notes the babu. Often enough, the ‘precedent’ lets the defaulter get off the hook even if the circumstances might have changed during the intervening period.
Clerks or babus – whatever one may call them – derive their power from the data they have access to. They may not be authorised to take any decision on the part of Government, but they do assist the authorities to arrive at one. And thereby hangs a tale.In the IT lingo, each babu is a yesterday’s memory cache.To retain his relevance in today’s fast changing world, he will have to constantly upgrade himself.